Vapour (The Enigma Sermons part 1)

Fog Forest Mist Mysterious Vegetation ForeOne word can stand out as iconic making a whole passage or book memorable. It can shape how we think about that passage or book, how we read it, how we understand it.

One such word is “vanity” and the book is Ecclesiastes.

The King James Version of verse 2 reads

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

Now we have a double problem here because first of all, the word “vanity” has a specific narrow connotation today. We think of vainness in terms of conceit and narcissism, that’s not what the translators had in mind, rather as more modern translations put it, they were thinking in terms of emptiness and meaninglessness. Is that what the original author had in mind?

The Hebrew word translated “vanity” or “meaningless” is hebel.  Literally it refers to breath or vapour.[1] Throughout the book it seems to have a number of nuances and those tend to be negative.[2] However, there is a difference between the negativity that we associate with vanity, emptiness or meaninglessness and the negativity we associate with “vapour.”

I want to suggest that the preacher (Qoholeth)’s concern is not so much that life is meaningless in a postmodern or cynical sense. Rather, vapour is something that is simply impossible to pin down Chasing the wind is a futile exercise.

Bartholomew suggests the translation “Enigma” or “Enigmatic” and I like it – hence the title of this series.[3] Life is an enigma, a puzzle.  How are we meant to make sense of it? How are we meant to live hopefully and faithfully when it is seemingly impossible to pin anything down? Or, how are we meant to live with faith and hope in an uncertain, messy and chaotic world?

Well, because Ecclesiastes is included in Scripture as special revelation, we can expect to find some answers

[1] Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 104.

[2] Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 105.

[3] Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 104.